Language is the enemy

The lecturer stands in front of class, looking dignified and serious. He collects his papers, taps them into line on the podium, sets them down and gets the attention of his audience.

Then he SCREAMS at the top of his lungs like a banshee with kidney stones. It’s a horrifying scream, blood curdling, ear splitting. 

The class reacts with alarm and goosebumps, then worry over the health of the lecturer. Is he having a stroke?

The lecturer continues:


What does THAT mean?

I mean, did I make that noise because I wanted to call attention to the traditional neglect visited upon art critics in American society?

Was it a sign of the fall of the patriarchy?

Did someone goose me?

It may have been, in some part, any of those things, but first and foremost, it was an EXPERIENCE.

It was a jangle of your nerves that buzzed in your synapses

Before it MEANT anything.

That is important to note — your perception of it and your reaction to it were PREVERBAL.

That is, you did not have to have ideas about it. You only had to be aware. To sense it. No words: They come later.

As an art critic, I get to see a lot of art and read a lot of artists’ statements. Those statements are chock full of ideas about things, concepts about art, politics, but they are too often deadly unaware.


I’m here tonight to talk about TEXT.

Or rather, text versus art.

Text is very hot these days in the art world.

Students, especially, are seen as cool to the extent that they misquote Jacques Derrida, to the extent that they can say, “I’m into deconstruction.” When they have little idea of what it means.

What they usually mean by “deconstruction” is that they have found the arcane and secret meaning of very ordinary things.

That marriage is a plot by the patriarchy to oppress women, for instance, or that — and I’m serious here, this has actually been suggested by a true academic:

that white people traditionally play games, like baseball and golf, with small white balls while black athletes play games that use large brown balls, like basketball.

Needless to say, this popularized version of deconstruction is not what the French philosophers meant, who invented it.

And to think that finding the hidden message is a new pursuit is typical of the grandiose self-assurance of youth. Only students can believe such stuff.

But in the rage for the latest, young artists are full of a belief that art is TEXT. Text to be explicated, or deconstructed.

But no matter how current the belief is, it runs headlong into the problem that art — although it may have a text, just as a Schubert song has lyrics —  is no more text than my scream.

Art does not spring from concepts, it springs from EXPERIENCE.


Here the lecturer stops to gauge his audience, moving his eyes from left to right, pausing for effect. He continues: 

In fact, it is art’s very job to try to make sense of experience — to comprehend the experience — not in neat little formulations, but as primary sensibility, facing what is incomprehensible.

Too many artists working today — especially in academic settings — believe they are supposed to make a great statement — often a political one — and illustrate it with an installation piece (it used to be site-specific art, but fashions change in art, too).

What is amusing to anyone with a longer view of history and art is how much this all sounds like Victorian art.

It is an age-old American tendency — beginning with the Puritans who distrusted images and continuing through the Victorians who distrusted sex, to today and people who distrust any number of things, from competition to violence to meat.

The formulation seems to be, that if you can describe it, circumscribe it, you can control it and therefore, eradicate it.

What I’m getting at is that there isn’t much difference — isn’t ANY difference — between condemning art for its violence now and condemning it for its sexual vulgarity a hundred years ago.

Victorianism and P.C. both have their roots in a vision of  the world as we would wish it to be.

In other words, not the world as we experience it.

Much of contemporary art is prescriptive rather than descriptive.

It is moralizing. It is also a lie.

Victorians are laughed at for calling the leg of a piano bench a “limb,” and well-bred young ladies were wont to get an attack of the vapours when someone used the wrong word.

Today, we flinch at calling a cripple a cripple. It is the same thing, and just as silly. We’ve all seen jokes about just how far this can be carried: a Caucasian is sometimes called “melanin challenged,” or a criminal has “alternative ethics.”

Another problem of text is that it comes from a trend that is mindlessly democratic. In this world everything and everyone is of equal value, which translates as meaning, of equal talent, of equal intelligence, equal wisdom, equal everything. It’s a world, again, as we might wish it to be.

But Michael Jordan could play basketball, with its large brown ball, a whole lot better than I can; and Jim Dine can draw a whole lot better than I can.

When all art is seen as neutral TEXT, and all art is held as essentially equal, with no masterpieces, no QUALITY — quality, in this view is only a plot by dead white guys to disenfranchise people of color and women, both with color and without.

Now I don’t deny that historically quality has been used as a kind of gatekeeper for the men’s club of art and achievement, but that is only one definition of quality — quality as shibboleth.

But EXPERIENCE, if we listen to it rather than to ideas — tells us that quality is more than merely a culturally defined ticket to the art history textbook.

Listen to Salieri’s overture to “La Fiera di Venezia” and then listen to Mozart’s overture to “Marriage of Figaro.” Your ear —  well before you get any idea in your head — tells you one is hopelessly dull and unmemorable and that the other dances with life.

Quality is never a set of criteria for judging a piece of work — such a view is best left to old German-speaking pedants and should indeed be cast away — but quality is MANIFEST. It is a gut-level experience.

(By the way, quality in all things is the subject of a holy book you might want to read — a great book by a very unpleasant man named Robert Pirsig. Check out “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Ignore the dated title and attend to the words inside. Pirsig is a very wise man with a very subtle mind, although he does have the personality of a porcupine and the affability of a Viking berserker.)

One’s reaction to a great work of art is a preverbal AWE.

I always say, what I look for in art is:

What I can’t understand, but I can’t get out of my head.

It excites the neurons and is in some ways analogous to the experience of life. And like life, it is always at bottom incomprehensible.

When we look at a great piece of art, the first thing that strikes us is a wave of recognition. We don’t know what it is , but we recognize it.

It is like I have often said: You cannot create profundity; you can only recognize it.

The experience of art is profound — moving in ways we cannot label.


The lecturer shifts his papers, coughs lightly to clear his throat: 


When I read one of those P.C.-clotted artist’s statements on a gallery wall, I can’t help but think that TEXT is above all, a way of AVOIDING art. Art muddies the waters — text believes they should be clear and healthy.

Take the art of Francesc Torres, who is an academically respected contemporary artist, whose work “deconstructs” history and colonialism. One gets the idea that Torres had an IDEA about history and colonialism and cast about to find a way of illustrating the idea, almost as if he were a political cartoonist.

The result is an art whose mind is made up. You either agree with him or you don’t. He might as well be William F. Buckley.

And, let’s face it, the people who go to see his shows probably already agree with him politically, so what possible point is he really making?

As experience, his art is thin gruel. You get the point, like the punchline on a New Yorker cartoon. But what have you seen? What have your felt?

What is there to experience??

Some slowly moving newsreels; a rotating monkey; a battalion of toy battle tanks.

Each is patently symbolic without ever understanding that for a symbol to work, it has to function on at least TWO levels.

Torres uses his images as “signs,” not symbols, that is, they have no organic connection to what he is trying to say, but only a rote connection, an artificial connection, such as that between a group of letters, say A – P – E, and the hairy, smelly, energetic homunculus that is signified.

Great symbols always function first on a PRIME — that is, Experiential — level. Secondary meaning is then spun off.

As Minor White put it, not only what something is, but what ELSE it is.

Melville didn’t decide to write about God and Nature and then use the whale as a shorthand for it. He wrote about a big, scary animal in the sea and it resonated.

Once, when told “Moby Dick” was about the ineffability of God, Melville was taken aback. He hadn’t realized it.

He know there was a great deal of philosophical stuff in the book — primarily the difference between Ahab and Ishmael, the actor and the observer, the doer and the meditator. But he hadn’t set out to make the whale the SYMBOL for the meaning of the book.

I.e. Symbols happen. They are not manufactured. When they are, you have rhetoric, not poetry.

(As William Yeats wrote: “Out of our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; poetry, out of our arguments with ourselves.”)

Rhetorical symbols — such as those of Torres — are the stuff of political speeches.

Part of the problem is that politics and art are mortal enemies. It is no surprise that the political right hates it so much. It isn’t just that they are all  right-wing boobs and Babbitts, but that the very aim of art is inimical to the  very aim of politics. Left wing politics hates art just as much as the right wing. History is fairly clear on that point.

I don’t mean that art can’t have a political component — it often does — Wagner’s “Ring” for instance, or Shakespeare’s plays — But I mean that politics, as in political theories — are always interested in answers. They are meant to solve problems.

Art, on the other hand, is interested in questions. Politics, for instance, wants to end violence against women, or abuse of children and these are very admirable motives — but art is more interested in the impulse that causes violence or abuse. Let’s act it out and see if we can discover where it comes from. We usually discover it comes from being human. To be human is to cause suffering. If anything, art tells us, to attempt to end suffering is to end humanity. Robot people can follow all the rules, flesh and blood cannot, without giving up something essential.

I ran into a classic case, or rather a rash of classic cases over the past few years, in the form of numerous Anti-Columbus shows. This is art meant to show how horrible mean old Christopher Columbus was — how he raped and murdered, stole and colonialized. Columbus became the black hat. He is allowed no redeeming characteristics, no shading of personality. He is demonized. He also takes it on the chin for all white European males, he is the classic disenfranchising, male chauvinist genocide.

What you wound up with in all these shows was strident, self-righteous whining. It is an irony that escaped them all that no one who is self-righteous has any self-knowledge.

Sure, Columbus did horrible things — I don’t find fault with the politics of the art, other than to find it a tad naive — BUT

Not one of the participating artists made the slightest effort to UNDERSTAND what drove Columbus.

Nor did they recognize the universal brutality of humankind — that the brotherhood of man is the brotherhood of Cain and Abel.

All evil was invested in Columbus and he was sent off into the desert of oblivion as our scapegoat.

No mention was made the possibility that even before Columbus, Native Americans caused each other suffering, death and genocide: No mention of Awatovi, where the supposedly peaceful Hopi annihilated one of their own villages in a horrible bloodbath;

No mention is made of Crow attacking Cheyenne;

Nor Aztec enslaving Mixtec;

Or other non-European evils:

Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide;

Nor Japan in China or Manchuria;

Tutsis slaughtering Hutus;

Shia bombing Suni.

If history teaches us anything it is that in all times and places murder and rapine is the norm, not the exception. Our heroes kill them; their heroes kill us. What difference if it is Azerbaijanis killing Armenians, or Serbs killing Croats or Somalians slaughtering their own.

These anti-Columbus artists had the chance to open up to the experience of the true vicious brutality of life. They could have looked into their own hearts to find it.

Columbus didn’t invent gangs, drive-bys or initiation rapes — all of these had their antecedents in pre-Columbian Central America.

If one of the artists had said, “I recognize Columbus in myself,” he would have gone a long way to complexifying his art, finding the EXPERIENCE that all art is born of.


Another pause as the lecturer gazes across the faces of his listeners. Are they getting it? Just as it seems he is about to start again, he screams again, at the top of his lungs:


There it is again. But by now, you’re familiar with the scream and you react differently. You know it is a pedagogical ploy, and you wait for the explanation. The experience has been tamed. The art has been drained from it. It no longer brings up fight-or-flight, the goosebumps just aren’t there.

So where does one start?

Consider what my wife does with her first grade students.

She does not teach them the color wheel or the elements of design. Or any other abstraction or concept. She brings animals to class, currently two bunnies named Pansy and Thurman.

The kids get to play with the rabbits — to feel their fur, their soft breath, their nibbles, their toenails, even their poo and pee.

They are utterly fascinated by them — They go out of themselves and experience something new — new and unexplainable.

Then they descend on their paper with their tempera paints and express what they have experienced.

They do not ask what does it mean?

Rather, they express that they have been excited.

This is what I call true art — These first graders are trying to make sense — visual and emotional — of what they have just witnessed and felt.

The paintings flow naturally.


There is an unease in the audience. They are mostly students, and have to provide their professors with words: term papers, quizzes and tests. 


It is OK to have ideas about art, after the fact. Sure, we can all sit around and discuss what the hell is going on in Jeff Koons’ two basketballs floating in an aquarium  — two large BROWN balls — and to try to understand what it means.

If talking and writing about art were useless, I would be out of work.

But in trying to make sense of a work of art, we are participating in the work, just as the artist participated in life. The words are a response to experiencing the art. They have to come AFTERWARDS, not before.

This is very different from setting the words first, deciding what our art is going to mean and then making what in effect is a mixed-media political cartoon making our point.

Thin gruel.

Lame art.


The lecturer now comes the the primary point of his talk. 


The basic problem is that text is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach art as text, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. At bottom, we need to recognize a few things about words.

First, words are not reality. This sounds simpleminded when you say it, but the fact is, we trust words more than we trust our eyes. We read the wall text next to a painting in a museum and trust what it says, even if it contradicts what we see.

I remember a wonderful video display. In it a nude woman is floating in deep water surrounded by thousands of jellyfish. The sunlight dapples her skin. It was intensely beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

But the wall text told us it was a feminist commentary on Irish politics. Huh? No, it was a naked woman in sunlight and jellyfish.

The words left many a museum visitor convinced he was a dunce for not getting it. But the words were simply stupid.


The lecturer is bringing it home, even if it seems rather a roundabout way to get there:


The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning — Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a turtle and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch the turtle. The paradox is purely linguistic; the experience is straightforward.

The Greek language is a highly ordered language. And the Greeks never made much distinction between the order of their language and the order of the universe. The felt language perfectly described experience: One to one.

The opening of the gospel of John, for instance. It sounds quasi-mystical in English, and that is how most American’s understand it.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “En Arche hen ho logos …”

But in Greek, “logos” doesn’t mean “word” the way the English “word” means “word.” It can be used to mean a single word, but it also means language — the Greek language, that is — in general, and more important, it means the structure of language.

Greek is often built of preexisting sentence structures — “One the one hand …blah blah blah, yet on the other hand … blah blah.” Or “his words say this, but his actions say that,”

The language has these contrasts and comparisons built in. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s all in the language even before you decide what to say.

So the Greek sees language as a mirror of the reality. If language says polarity, it must be because the world is polar.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is like one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But the definition of a triangle is only words.

Language structure was understood by the Greeks in much the same way. And when they said “In the beginning was the word,” they meant, in the beginning, before anything else, the structure of the universe existed, and the structure WAS God.

Their language created a whole theology. Was it based on experience? You will have to be the judge of that.

Language is a tyrant. It can only discuss a minuscule portion of reality, yet we take it to be the whole.

Language is, in fact, a very poor mirror of reality.

There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless.

Names are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to artists to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to art to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

As artists, it is up to you to make that unnamed curve that feels the way you do when you first wake up in the morning, when the floor is cold and sunlight comes in through the window and the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.

It is up to you to forge that surface that feels like your nerves when you are nearly run down by a bus on Main Street.

Up to you to make it heavy as your heart or light as your window curtain.

Up to you to make it new.

Make it meaningful.

Make it complex.

Make it richer than words.

Truer than politics.

More curious than a curator.

It is your job to be open to experience, before it is named and tamed.


The lecturer picks up his notes, steps away from the podium and stubs his toe on the railing along the stairway. He screams once more like a banshee with kidney stones. 



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